I’ve been busy: the length of this blog post proves it. Between work, socials, and other commitments, it feels like we’ve not had a break. Luckily on Wednesday we will be travelling to Ratanikiri for our mid-phase review – a 3-day holiday of sorts, filled with meetings, but also a chance to explore the area. It will be nice to have a break from our everyday work and escape the small community of Srae Krosang commune for a few days. This week I lost my memory card; it turned up later in a pocket but I don’t have any pictures from the week, and will be using pictures from previous weeks to fill out the post.
The watermelon social
Last Sunday my team woke early to head over to the island to hold a sports youth club with the kids of Koh Krouch. Some kids were young enough to be running around half dressed, and others old enough to be playing with make up; together we played everything from British Bulldog to relay races. Upon our return, the whole Stung Treng team headed over to one of the host homes’ watermelon fields. We went by single axe tractor (quite different from what we typically think of as a tractor); almost 20 of us were piled onto the back, along with rice, speakers and an array of musical instruments, and we cruised along the road with the music going like a one wagon parade through Siem Bouk – quite the sight for the locals. Once there we immediately found a grove of trees and vines, perfect for climbing (and posing for pictures).
We cooked in a clearing – chips, vegetables and an impressive fish – as we talked about the political events of the day. A prominent opposition politician, famous for standing up for human rights in the face of the Cambodian government, had been shot. We discussed the restrictions on freedom of speech in Cambodia, something I’d discovered before when trying to plan a community event on human rights – if you talk about politics you must fear arrest. The latest president has been in place for 30 years and must not be spoken against.
We ate all together on mats in the clearing, sharing out the food amongst us. There was an incredible amount of food as well as copious numbers of watermelons that the group picked from the fields. When we were too hot to stay there any longer, we took the tractor to a long awaited ‘waterfall’ – in fact a rather minor stream. Despite its rather anti-climatic presentation, it was a massive relief to paddle there. One volunteer had just got in waist deep when the rain began – and when it rains it pours. After hiding under the host family’s house for a while we went back by tractor in the rain – always ready to provide a laugh to the local community.
The working week
First thing on Monday morning, a member of my team had to travel to Phnom Penh clinic. As she was the only other UK volunteer in my group the cross-cultural communication challenges were ramped up to the max, just as we began one of our most challenging weeks: after a change of plan last week we suddenly found ourselves having to rapidly assemble and mentor election committees in four schools to carry out the student council elections according to schedule. My team waded with determination through meetings and session plans all week, whilst still carrying out youth clubs every afternoon. We managed on Thursday to have the teachers come to the office for student council training and fruit; and though there was reluctance amongst them because of financial and time pressures, we managed to answer their concerns and secure promises to hold elections.
On Tuesday it was a UK volunteer’s 21st birthday. Our project manager purchased a cake in Stung Treng iced with the words: “Indepandant. 12/07/97” – spot the mistakes. After failed attempts to stop her from getting stressed at work we chilled at the Riverside Café, and then… Karaoke! In a tiny room in someone’s house they have set up karaoke on their TV – complete with disco lights. We rocked out to several Khmer songs (our favourite is dop bpram-muy ), Avril Lavigne (I know every single to word to 95% of her songs, no shame) and Britney Spears. It was ridiculously sweaty and our voices were hoarse; we cycled back for dinner feeling like it was 2am.
Wednesday was incredibly exciting: the volunteer who had an accident returned! We waited for her at the office, eager to surprise her with a sign, but had to leave for the schools at 2. When I cycled back she was sat in her host home where I met her for an emotional welcome. If she had not returned it would have cast such a dark shadow on the trip; to see her come back made everyone’s week. I ate watermelon and biscuits on her balcony as she told me how desperate she had been to come back, even when she was very sick.
On Friday we visited one of the host homes. There was a death in the family and in the Khmer Buddhist tradition they kept the coffin in the house for 3 days, with music playing loudly for all to hear. The coffin was covered in money and fairy lights, and a money tree on top. A picture of the deceased, in a wreath, was at one end with an orange candle burning close by. White is the colour worn for deaths, but the family were dressed in colour. They brought us biscuits and water, and were incredible hosts. Afterwards we went to the riverside cafe and watched a storm rage over the island.
Weekend feat. Jar Social
Our second community action day (CAD) happened this Saturday, and this time it was a talk on Children’s rights. We invited the District Officer of Education to speak, as well as designing a roleplay and activities for the participants to ensure the session was clear and interactive. Our role-play was a fantastic production examining comparing the lives of children with and without their rights being upheld. Two people played a house (excellently) and it featured hand puppets. It seemed to go down thoroughly well, and the participants responded well, identifying problems in Cambodia and suggesting the possible solutions. A challenge was the heat! The CAD was held in a building in the pagoda, in which the monks take their meals. It was sweltering and I was yet again rendered useless by my lack of Khmer, so I paced the hall restlessly from start to finish, finding any task to make the time pass. As we ended we could hear thunder in the distance, but no rain fell for the third day in a row.
After almost a full day of work on Saturday, we were up again bright and early on Sunday for a 7 am bus to Stung Treng – aka the Jar social. After so many days of no rain it was 30 degrees by 10 am; the sun, sweat and doxycycline – which makes me a little UV sensitive – means that even if I diligently put on sunscreen, burning is out of my control. We paced through the markets, still a violent cacophony of smells and sounds and motorbikes, collectively in search of items ranging from personalised football shirts to peanut butter to leg wax. There was no luck on the peanut butter front, but plenty of fruit, football shirts and fish to choose from.
We then went to the somewhat misadvertised temple in Stung Treng (it was decidedly unassuming) before rapidly returning to Stung Treng town to eat at a western restaurant. I had a toastie because bread and dairy are some of the things I miss most (I’m also craving cereal). The next stop was the misnomered ‘Bird Resort’ which contained roughly 2 birds, but happened to have an incredible number of jars – jars in grass, jars in a museum, jars on bridges…
Though fairly ridiculous, it was also a blissfully chilled eco-lodge with beautiful views of the Mekong and numerous places that we could all relax together. I paid an extortionate $1 for a can of coke to give momentary relief from the heat; by the end of our trip we were all dehydrated and half daft from the sun, cracking up together at all the silly things that had gone wrong. When we reached Siem Bouk once more we were grateful to be back in the quiet commune, where everyone recognises us and shouts hello. It’s funny how quickly you adapt to a place.
To finish off the week, we all gathered at a host home for one of the Khmer volunteers’ birthday and ate a traditional Lao meal – something similar to a hot pot (not in the Lancashire sense) but, instead of a stock, a very complex stew is kept at the boil. It tasted of coconut and coriander. As we ate the sun went down in a vivid blaze, and in the dark the UK volunteers cleaned all the dishes in a raucous assembly line.
Congratulations for making it this far. So much has happened today that I could talk about, but I’m going to save it for next week’s blog so that this post doesn’t run on for another 1000 words!
So many things have gone wrong this week and I’ve done so much work and lost so much sleep, but it’s been amazing. If I’m learning anything, it’s how to take life, and mistakes, with a little humour for the sake of resilience. If it’s not life or death, there’s room to fix it.